New coach pushing Wolfpack to have more competitive edge
By AARON BEARD
Oct. 31, 2017
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — New North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts spent the offseason pushing his players to get in better shape to play his up-tempo pressing style. He also spent time listening to what fans wanted from his first team.
"The one thing that came back to me is they wanted to see a product that would compete every night," Keatts said. "And that's what I'm looking for."
That's one reason Keatts is now in Raleigh after two NCAA Tournament trips in three seasons at UNC Wilmington. His predecessor, Mark Gottfried, guided the Wolfpack to four straight NCAA Tournaments and two Sweet 16s from 2012-15, only to see things come undone with two straight losing seasons that included a 9-27 record in Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season play.
But it was the lack of competitiveness that stood out during a 15-17 season last year, with N.C. State losing five games by at least 24 points — including a 51-point loss at rival North Carolina — that helped lead to Gottfried's ouster .
Keatts is hoping the changes will help reverse that rapid decline . He's bringing a version of the fullcourt press from his time under Rick Pitino at Louisville. He's talked of wanting players who can defend, he loves shooters and wants players "with some type of toughness" to run it.
Sophomore Markell Johnson offers athleticism at the point to fill the role vacated when one-and-done talent Dennis Smith Jr. bolted for the NBA. Fifth-year senior Lennard Freeman is back to bring rebounding to a frontcourt that features sophomore Omer Yurtseven and senior Abdul-Malik Abu.
Picked to finish 12th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina State brought in pair of graduate transfers — Baylor's Allerik Freeman and North Carolina A&T's Sam Hunt — to bolster a roster that had only four returnees from last year's main rotation.
"When you're trying to turn over a new leaf, it's kind of cool we have a new combination of new guys," said Torin Dorn, one of the lead returnees. "And we still have some guys that have been here and know what N.C. State is all about and know what it takes to win at N.C. State."
Here are things to know about the 2017-18 season for the Wolfpack:
JOHNSON'S JOB: The 6-foot-1 Johnson had a better than 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio behind Smith last season and needs to show quickly he can take the lead role in the offense. Keatts put it simply: "The guy that needs to play well obviously is Markell Johnson."
ABU'S HEALTH: The school announced last week that Abu had sprained a knee ligament and his recovery time was uncertain, though he didn't need surgery. N.C. State needs the 6-8, 240-pound Abu up front, from his experience (86 career starts) to his production (12.4 points and 7.9 rebounds over the past two seasons).
YURTSEVEN'S IMPROVEMENT: Yurtseven arrived being discussed as a possible one-and-done prospect, but the Turkish 7-footer looked overwhelmed during much of his debut season after missing the first nine games due to an NCAA eligibility dispute. Yurtseven said he's lost body fat and gotten in better shape while gaining confidence learning Keatts' system. "I feel like he has a good way of adapting to the players that he has, adapting his system," Yurtseven said.
FREEMAN'S HEALTH: Lennard Freeman is finally healthy again. He needed a second surgery to correct a stress fracture in his right leg and redshirted last season. He showed his value when the Wolfpack's late-season run that reached the 2015 NCAA Sweet 16 began when Freeman moved into the starting lineup.
REINFORCEMENTS FOR 2019: N.C. State has three players sitting out in Utah transfer Devon Daniels, UNC Wilmington transfer C.J. Bryce and freshman Braxton Beverly ahead of playing next season. Beverly had hoped to play this year, but the NCAA has denied an appeal to its ruling forcing him to sit out — basically treating him like a transfer instead of an incoming recruit — because he took summer classes at Ohio State before a late coaching change prompted him to get his release and come to N.C. State.
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